Jason Dias: On Racism, Reality and the Outrage of False Equivalence

Written by Jason Dias

One black person killing one white person isn’t equivalent to years of discrimination, intimidation and exploitation.

aNewDomain — I’m actually getting tired of writing about racism. There’s just so much to cover, and too much of it seems like the basic elements of reality. And I’ve already covered those basic elements of reality. But here we go again.

Today’s problem is false equivalence. 

ferguson-picturesThe idea is we find a story in which a black person kills a white person. Then we put up pictures of the Ferguson crowd rioting next to a picture of white, midwestern America doing nothing about it.

Where, we then ask, is the outrage?

Now, people kill people all the time. More than 30,000 gun deaths occur in the United States every year. And, true, a high proportion of that violence is black-on-black. Some proportion of it is black people shooting white people, but only a very small proportion.

None of that is the issue here. The people in Ferguson peacefully protested — you might not have seen much of the peaceful part on Faux News, and you might not have seen the people of all races joining together to protest conditions there, either. It was not because Michael Brown was shot. 

That was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The peaceful Ferguson protests were about a culture of exploitation and abuse. The fact that the police were nearly all white is an aside. What are the facts are that they used the town of Ferguson as a revenue generator, and intimidated and harassed black citizens on a daily basis and that justice was unequally applied. Decades of pressure on the community from the authorities resulted in mass protest. Beautiful, first-amendment guaranteed peaceful protest.

jason-dias-racismViolence erupted later, on a small scale, including from white protesters. This happens when people feel voiceless. A few shops were looted. Now, if you’re cable news, that’s where the money is — you don’t show the thousands of people still acting with restraint in the face of ongoing discrimination, or the protesters preventing violence and looting, or the protesters calling in the police when they witnessed violence.

So 0ne black person killing one white person is not equivalent to decades of discrimination, intimidation and exploitation in a context of a society that refuses to acknowledge its deep racism. 

This would be equivalent if the victim in your story, the police officer, patrolled an area where the citizens routinely used their authority to extort money from the police, targeting white cops for abuse, exploitation and harassment, with the cops powerless to combat the racial prejudice. For example, imagine if the cops could be arrested for resisting arrest. Choked out on the street while pleading with the black citizen — please, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. Shot for walking home with a bag of Skittles in one hand.

White people don’t have to have The Talk with our kids — about how not to get shot by cops. This is a culture of violence not much changed from the days of Jim Crow and segregation.

In the Michael Brown case specifically, since you want to talk about it, Darren Wilson seems to have been cleared of wrongdoing — although without a trial, we’ll never get a clear look at any of the evidence. 

ted rall ferguson protestWhat is clear is that, while Mr. Brown may indeed have acted inappropriately, Mr. Wilson abandoned all good sense in his handling of this case. By choosing to intercede individually, without waiting for backup, he forced a violent confrontation he could not win without recourse to lethal force.

I’ve been involved in many confrontations in my work as a mental health professional. And when you know you might have to physically intervene in a situation, you bring overwhelming force. This often cuts off the need for any violence to begin with. The potentially violent client more often than not just backs down. But when violence is inevitable, partners keep you accountable, and they allow you to engage in the confrontation with less than lethal force.

Mr. Wilson seems to have followed Mr. Brown both on foot and in his patrol car, alone. Confronted him verbally, alone. Engaged him physically, alone. This is part of a pattern of authoritarian policing in Ferguson that generates resistance and resentment, far from modern models of community partnership.

And now we know it was part of a larger pattern of exploiting the poor, of attaching dollar-value citations to people who cannot afford to defend themselves from such charges. These tactics were used to make up for budget shortfalls without raising taxes on rich folks. This is more common than you might think — so common it has a name: the poor tax.

So, yeah. I don’t think the people (short of Fox News) asking “Where is the outrage?” are racists, at least not that they know of. They’re well-meaning, middle-class people who would like to think we live in a world of equal opportunity in which our choices matter. But the argument only makes sense in a racist society.

Why are black people statistically over-represented in the rolls of poverty? Either there is something different about people of color — intelligence, work ethic, values — or there is something different about the way society treats such people. The first answer is racist. And that’s what racism means: It’s the belief that some people, based on racial differences, are better than others. Whites are smarter, work harder or have a culture that values middle-class attainment — that’s a racist proposition. This of course has been scientifically falsified many dozens of times, totally debunked. You keep believing it because you want to. Because you have to, if you want to go on believing in America. Land of the free, of equal opportunity, of give us your tired, huddled masses.

And that’s where the outrage is. We are sitting on it, stifling it. Refusing to believe we should be outraged that our country is not what we were told it was.

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.

Cover image: The All-Nite Images (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons